I’ve been particular about the taste of water for as long as I can remember. Like many of us, I think tap water always has a flavor, whether it’s chlorinated, slightly metallic, or even mildew-y (I don’t drink it at all, in that case). I prefer water that has no flavor, so I use a filter at home. However, I started wondering whether I really need to filter my tap water: Is it a smart precaution to take, or is non-filtered tap water perfectly safe to drink?
Here’s the short answer: It depends on where you live and the pipes in your home. The CDC states that “the United States has one of the safest and most reliable drinking water systems in the world.” Still, some water in the US could stand to undergo a second filtering process.
Is tap water safe to drink?
In most cases, tap water in the US is safe to drink. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enforces and sets water regulations so that all public water systems in America meet a set of standards. (Public water systems, which are often run by county water departments, are those that deliver water to homes. Public water can come from a groundwater source, such as a public well, or surface-water source, such as a river, lake, or reservoir.) EPA regulations don’t apply to private wells, so private-well owners are responsible for keeping their water potable (a.k.a. safe to drink).
If you receive public water and you’re curious about the quality, check out your water quality report, or Consumer Confidence Report (CCR). Community water suppliers must send this report out by mail or online once per year by July 1. Here’s what it tells you:
- Where your water comes from (well, lake, river, reservoir, or other)
- The regulated contaminants that the Community Water System Survey (CWS, run by the EPA) detected in your water, and the level (note: chlorine and other disinfectants may be listed as contaminants)
- What your supplier did to reduce the level of contaminant in the drinking water
- How those contaminant levels compare to national standards
- Whether your water is in violation of any health-based standards
Why haven’t I received a CCR?
If you haven’t gotten your CCR yet or you lost it, you may be able to find it on the Find Your Local CCR page of the EPA website. Otherwise, contact your public water supplier. You also won’t get a report if you live in a rental property. In this case, contact a building manager or landlord for more information.
Should you filter your tap water?
Even though there are regulations in place, some sources argue that tap water isn’t necessarily safe to consume. An investigative report published on Science.org found that between 1982 and 2015, between 9 million and 45 million Americans got drinking water from a source that was in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. People who lived in rural, low-income areas were the most at risk, especially those in parts of Oklahoma, Texas, and Idaho.
Also, the quality of your pipes matters. Lead pipes were not banned in the US until 1986, so homes and apartment buildings built before then may still have lead pipes. (The CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics both note that no level of lead is safe in drinking water. Even low levels in the body can damage the brain and nervous system, among other serious health effects.) In recent years, the federal government and state governments have made efforts to get all remaining lead pipes replaced, but residents might not see those changes for years. If you want to know whether you have lead pipes in your home, NPR created a simple test to find out (all you’ll need is a refrigerator magnet and a key or coin).
Ultimately, the safety of drinking water in your area will depend on a wide variety of factors. The best way to know whether you need a filter is to first check your CCR, and if necessary, test your tap water.
Should I test my tap water?
It’s up to you whether you want to get your tap water tested. Here are a few reasons to do so:
- You’ve noticed that your water tastes strange or has a color or odor.
- The water stains clothes or fixtures like faucets.
- Your water source is close to a septic system.
- You have a private water system. (In this case, you should test your water annually for at least the most common contaminants.)
- A new baby will live in your home (the EPA recommends that you test your water for nitrate early in pregnancy, because it’s linked to a higher risk of birth defects).
Since testing can get expensive, try to limit it to specific problems. For instance: If you notice a funny taste or odor, test your water for sulfate, chloride, iron, manganese, hardness, and corrosion.
Worried about cost? Your county health department may help you test for bacteria and nitrates. Otherwise, you can get your water tested by a state certified laboratory. Find one in your area by calling the Safe Drinking Water Hotline, 800-426-4791, or visiting this contact information page.
What’s the best water filter?
When it comes to water filters, no one product fits all. The CDC states that no filter or treatment system can remove 100 percent of all contaminants. Also, different filters address different problems. Some just remove chemicals like chlorine, while others are better at removing germs.
There are four main types of filters to choose from: water filter pitchers, faucet attachments, under-sink filters, and reverse osmosis filters (which range from least to most expensive, respectively). These are the leading products in each category:
- Pitcher: Pur Plus Pitcher, which has the best certifications, including one for lead reduction (Buy from Amazon, $29.99)
- Faucet Attachment: Pur Advanced Faucet Filtration System (Buy from Amazon, $32.99)
- Under sink: The Aquasana AQ-5200 under-sink filter (Buy from Amazon, $124.99)
- Reverse Osmosis: The Home Master TMAFC Artesian Undersink Water Filter (Buy from Amazon, $304.67)
There are also a few brands that sell filtering water bottles. If you like the idea of having filtered water on the go, here’s one to try: Brita Stainless Steel Water Filter Bottle, 32 ounce (Buy from Amazon, $34.99).
The takeaway: If you just want to improve your water’s taste, a pitcher, faucet attachment, or under-sink system is the best way to go. If you suspect that there are serious contaminants in your water (like arsenic or lead), a reverse osmosis system is your best bet until your county can address deeper issues in your public water supply.
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This article was updated on October 6, 2022.